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Obama, king air differences but trumpet ties

RIYADH: U.S. President Barack Obama underlined Washington’s “strong” relationship with Saudi Arabia in talks with King Abdullah Friday, the White House said, on a visit intended to allay the kingdom’s concerns that the decades-old alliance is weakening.

The two discussed “tactical differences” in their approach to some issues during the meeting, but agreed both sides remain strategically aligned, a senior U.S. official said.

Obama also assured Abdullah that the United States would not accept a bad nuclear deal with Iran, the official said, adding that Washington remained concerned about providing some shoulder-mounted anti-aircraft weapons to Syrian rebels.

In the runup to his visit to the kingdom, officials had said Obama would aim to persuade the monarch that Saudi concerns that Washington was slowly disengaging from the Middle East and no longer listening to its old ally were unfounded.

Last year senior Saudi officials warned of a “major shift” away from Washington after bitter disagreements about its response to the “Arab Spring” uprisings, and policy toward Iran and Syria, where Riyadh wants more American support for rebels.

The official said the two leaders had spoken frankly about a number of issues and “what might be or might have been tactical differences or differences in approaching some of these issues, but President Obama made very clear he believes our strategic interests remain very much aligned.”

The official added that Obama had assured the king that “we won’t accept a bad deal” on Iran and that the king “listened very carefully” to what Obama said. The official said it was important for Obama to come and explain the U.S. position face-to-face with the king.

The elderly king, accompanied by a number of senior princes, had what appeared to be an oxygen tube connected to his nose at the start of the two-hour meeting at his desert farm at Rawdat Khuraim northeast of the capital Riyadh, witnesses said.

Saudi state television showed Obama, accompanied by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and National Security Adviser Susan Rice, listening attentively while King Abdullah spoke, gesticulating with both hands as he made a point.

“In his meetings with King Abdullah in Riyadh, President Obama reiterated the significance the United States places on its strong relationship with Saudi Arabia, which has endured for over 80 years,” a White House statement said.

Obama has shown himself wary of being drawn into another conflict in the Muslim world after working hard to end or reduce American military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.

While Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter, supplies less petroleum to the United States than in the past, safeguarding its energy output remains important to Washington, as does its cooperation in combating Al-Qaeda.

The Saudis also want more reassurance on American intentions regarding talks over Iran’s nuclear program, which might eventually lead to a deal that ends sanctions on Tehran in exchange for concessions on its atomic facilities.

Riyadh fears such a deal could come at the expense of Sunni Arabs in the Middle East, some of whom fear that Shiite Iran will take advantage of any reduction in international pressure to spread its influence by supporting co-religionists.

An editorial in the semiofficial al- Riyadh newspaper Friday said Obama did not know Iran as well as the Saudis, and could not “convince us that Iran will be peaceful. Our security comes first and no one can argue with us about it.”

The Saudi king was accompanied in the talks by Crown Prince Salman, Prince Muqrin, who was named second-in-line to rule Thursday, and Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal.

Also present was the new American ambassador in Riyadh, Joseph Westphal, whose appointment was confirmed by the Senate late Wednesday, apparently in order to let him attend Friday’s meeting.

Human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia were not raised in talks between Obama and the king Friday, a U.S. official said.

“Today, given the extent of time they spent on Iran and Syria, they didn’t get to a number of issues, and it wasn’t just human rights,” the official said. The official added that Obama Saturday would present a State Department Woman of Courage Award to a Saudi woman fighting domestic violence.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 29, 2014, on page 1.

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Summary

U.S. President Barack Obama underlined Washington's "strong" relationship with Saudi Arabia in talks with King Abdullah Friday, the White House said, on a visit intended to allay the kingdom's concerns that the decades-old alliance is weakening.

Obama also assured Abdullah that the United States would not accept a bad nuclear deal with Iran, the official said, adding that Washington remained concerned about providing some shoulder-mounted anti-aircraft weapons to Syrian rebels.

The official said it was important for Obama to come and explain the U.S. position face-to-face with the king.

Saudi state television showed Obama, accompanied by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and National Security Adviser Susan Rice, listening attentively while King Abdullah spoke, gesticulating with both hands as he made a point.

Human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia were not raised in talks between Obama and the king Friday, a U.S. official said.


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